by Sam Juliano
The plight of Holland during the terrible days of the Third Reich invariably leads to the real-life story of Anne Frank, a gifted 13 year old, who with her family, were captured and sent off to concentration camps in the waning days of the second world war. The diary she left behind, which stands as an amazingly perceptive coming-of-age testament, has served as an inspiration for schoolchildren in the intervening decades, and as a lasting monument to the irrepressible human spirit. Director Martin Koolhaven’s Winter in Wartime, (Oorlogswinter) a visually arresting Dutch film made six years ago contains a number of themes that invite comparisons with the Frank document: age of the main character, betrayal, concealment and maturation in a time of oppression only months before the war’s conclusion. The major difference aside from the “fact vs. fiction” aspect is that Winter in Wartime concerns the successful clandestine activities of native Dutch townspeople in the final months of the German occupation.
Set in a village in the Netherlands in frigid January, the film presents the point-of-view of 13 year-old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) the uncooperative son of the town’s Mayor, who mainly out of fear for the safety of his family cooperates with the Nazi gauleiter. A sense of urgency is imparted in the perspective of having all the events of the film unfold through the boys’ eyes, even accentuating that view by including a number of shots of Michiel looking at other characters through holes and narrow openings. Indeed it’s what gives this film it’s power and singular focus, in large measure due to the increasing awareness shared by the protagonist and the audience. And setting plays a large role in advancing the plot. In this sense the expansive, unmitigated whiteness that is seen in the vast majority of the film’s outdoor sequences serves as a thematic contrast to the caliginous hues of war.
Based on parts of a best-selling autobiography by Dutch writer Jan Terlouw,Winter in Wartime chronicles the moral coming of age of said teenage boy who comes to believe that his father’s strategy of playing up to the Nazis borders on appeasement. When he sees people dragged from their homes in the middle of the night to be taken to places from which they will never return, and then learns his father has accepted the gift of a rabbit from these brutal oppressors, he places all his confidence in his father’s outgoing brother (Yorick van Wageningen) whom he sees as heroic when he arrives with a radio and articles that suggest underground manueverings. When Michiel and his friend Theo (Jesse van Driel) come upon a downed plane as the Nazis swoon all over it. The young boy is subsequently grilled and returned to his father, who is relieved the incident didn’t lead to any kind of detention or punishment for his son.
Subsequently Michiel becomes involved with Theo’s older brother Dirk, who is impressed with him for not mentioning that Theo was at the plane scene. He trusts Michiel with a letter after he is arrested and a colleague is killed, and the enclosed instructions lead the boy to a hunting cabin in a wooded area where a Royal Air Force paratrooper named Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower) is hiding after surviving the crash. Michiel makes it a personal mission to keep his find a secret, but he pays the ultimate price after the Nazis decide to punish town leaders for not exposing the killer of one of their own soldiers in the woods. Michiel later shares his secret with his older sister, a nurse who can attend to Jack’s wounds. A romance quickly ensues. The film’s tensions then segue into a shocking chain of events when the boy’s father is used as a scapegoat for the killing of a German soldier and is executed in the town square by firing squad, and the plans to rescue Jack are betrayed in a harrowing dockside sequence. By then the die has been cast and Michiel makes some critical decisions that would wrangle the perceptions of a seasoned adult.
As Michiel, young Lakemeier gives an astonishing first-time acting performance that is believable and emotionally wrought, and within the context of this clearly delineated good vs. evil story, he’s an engaging hero who by wartime initiation learns fast in the art of survival. He handles his big scenes with amazing confidence, and by film’s end is ready to assume the role taken by his slain father. When he discovers the deceit of his father’s collaborator brother, he stays the course in administering deserved justice, despite the test on his conscience wrought by familial connection. Lakemeier is wrenching the scene when he reacts to his father’s bogus execution in the town square. Bower as the paratrooper and Wageningen as Uncle Ben give full-blooded portrayals, while Raymond Thiry as Michiel’s father is effective as an enabler who doesn’t see the dire consequences of his complicity. He has a beautiful scene teaching Michiel how to shave, which symbolically hints at the impending rites of passage for the boy.
Cinematographer Guido van Gennep takes full advantage of the snowy Lithuanian landscape (where the film was shot) with some virtuoso camerawork, and Italian compser Pino Donaggio has contributed a lyrical score. More psychological than most battlefield films, Koolhaven relegates the war to the background, and lets Michiel’s activities within that framework dictate his movie’s arc and progression. It’s a wholly superlative decision and it helps to make Winter in Wartime one of the most impressive Holocaust films of recent years. Most of all this is a film about a boy’s baptism under fire, and how through the relatively brief window of war occupation he transforms from a typical teenager into his family’s leader by war’s end. There can be no greater test of endurance and fortitude, and Michiel narrowly averts disaster by ingenuity, acute focus and a measure of luck. to be sure Winter in Wartime is one of the most exceptional childhood themed World War II films.